It’s no secret that Nebraska is dealing with a tight labor market. While “help wanted” signs line storefronts, Nebraska’s unemployment rate remains relatively low (2.2% in September, tied for the fourth-lowest in the nation). The Reader has covered the state’s labor shortage extensively over the last few months — along with the solutions being put forward. Until now, those solutions have centered around policy at the state and local level, but there are also federal policies that inhibit expansion of the workforce.
Last month, as part of our gubernatorial election coverage, The Reader talked to two experts to discuss the economic challenges the next governor will have to address. Both cited immigration, a largely federal issue.
Eric Thompson, who chairs the economics department at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, said the tightening of legal immigration regulations has made it more difficult for Nebraska to attract and retain working-age people.
“There’s more to it than just economics, but if you look at it from a purely economic perspective, it’s slowed the growth of our labor force,” Thompson said.
Chris Decker, an economist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Midwestern states such as Nebraska can and should influence reform.
“Retirements are on the increase due to demographics and COVID, and replacement is challenging … Reforming immigration can certainly help this situation,” Decker said.
According to the 2021 American Community Survey, Nebraska is home to roughly 144,000 people who were not born in the United States, about 7% of the state’s population. Of those foreign-born, nearly 57% are not U.S. citizens and approximately 53% come from Latin America.
Current federal policy allows for what’s known as immigration registry, a process through which anyone who entered and remained in the United States before 1972 can apply for permanent residence (known as a green card). This process does not discriminate based on immigration status, meaning undocumented immigrants that meet the requirements also qualify.
Because immigration registry requires one to have entered the United States more than 50 years ago, advocates have pushed to change the eligibility to a rolling date. Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Sen. Alex Padilla, both of California, would do just that — changing the criteria for being on immigration registry to having entered and remained in the United States for seven years prior to the application date.
Here in Nebraska, the push is being led by Nebraska Appleseed. Darcy Tromanhauser, who runs the nonprofit’s Immigrants and Communities Program, said the bill would add stability to Nebraska’s workforce.
“These are people who live their lives in two-year increments because of how often their legal status here is at risk, whether it’s court challenges or renewal,” Tromanhauser said.
Tromanhauser has worked in immigration advocacy for 20 years. She said the conversation around immigration registry has moved quickly.
“I don’t think I’d even heard of the term ‘registry’ until a couple of years ago,” Tromanhauser said.
It’s unclear just how many people in Nebraska alone the bill would affect, but a press release from Lofgren’s office says the bill would cover approximately 8 million Americans right off the bat.
About 60,000 Nebraskans are undocumented immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council, making up 41% of the state’s foreign-born population. A 2017 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan tax policy organization, said undocumented immigrants paid $39.8 million in state and local taxes, and full immigration reform would add an extra $8.4 million.
Data from USCIS, the federal agency in charge of immigration, shows the metro area is home to approximately 1,400 recipients of DACA, an Obama-era program that allows those who came to the United States as children before 2007 to continue living and working here without getting lawful status.
Approximately 1,781 recipients of TPS, the resident program for those who are unable to return home safely due to a country’s condition, live in Nebraska, with most coming from El Salvador, according to data from the National Immigration Forum.
Nobody from Nebraska’s congressional delegation has signed on in support of the bill. Tromanhauser said that’s because of timing – it’s a relatively new piece of legislation, introduced in July.
“This bill was introduced right before Congress went on the summer recess, so there wasn’t much time to get up and running with it. Our delegation has been great at working with us on other things, like the Dream and Promise Act,” Tromanhauser said.
(The Dream and Promise Act, which streamlines conditional green cards for undocumented immigrants, passed the House in 2019. Don Bacon was the only one of Nebraska’s three congressmen to vote yes.)
The new bill is just one page long. Tromanhauser said that’s intentional.
“This bill was designed to be a simple and elegant way of helping as many people at once as possible,” Tromanhauser said. “It’s not opening the floodgates — these are people who already live here, work here and are active players in their communities.”
The state government’s role in immigration is largely confined to social services, such as offering in-state tuition or expanding access to driver’s licenses. Nebraska expanded in-state tuition for the University of Nebraska in 2006. It lifted a ban on giving Dreamers driver’s licenses in 2015. Both actions were approved by the Legislature and overrode vetoes from Govs. Dave Heineman and Pete Ricketts, respectively.
“Local governments are stuck with this inability to change how many people can come into their cities — they’re forced to rely on Congress to strengthen the fabric of their community,” Tromanhauser said.
The bill currently sits in the judiciary committees of both the House and the Senate, where they were referred to shortly after introduction. It’s unclear whether any immigration reform is likely, let alone this bill’s passage. But Tromanhauser said continuing the conversation is necessary.
“This used to be a regular dialogue. Congress has, historically, updated immigration laws regularly — it’s a relatively recent development that immigration laws have stalled,” Tromanhauser said.
Community engagement has yielded positive results for Nebraska Appleseed. Often, the group’s presentations can result in surprise and frustration.
“A lot of people assume there’s already a mechanism in place for immigration,” Tromanhauser said. “If you haven’t gone through it, you may be unaware of how frustrating it can be. That’s why doing this kind of outreach is so important.”
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